Sunday, July 23, 2006

Administrative Hijinks & Power Plays

Certain jobs in corporate America are ripe with office politics, power plays, and inept administrators and managers who maneuvered their way not unlike a chess piece, into a corner office or choice cubicle.

I am a writer. I am an editor. I am a teacher. I was an actor. I have directed staged readings. I am an artist. Oftentimes artists don't fit into restrictive corporate arenas. I can only speak of New York City, but can imagine the same applies to cities large and small throughout the world. New York is one of the financial and business centers of the world. Is it then irresponsible for an artist to seek temporary employment, complete with full medical benefits, while pursuing and financing creative endeavors?

I never liked playing office bingo or politics. I have worked with people who were competitive because I was able to blend into the woodwork while maintaining a smile and sunny disposition. In their minds, this wasn't supposed to have happened. I was supposed to be miserable or bitter, and join them in a rousing verse of Misery Loves Company. If I've learned anything from my eighty-nine year old granny, is that we're here today, gone tomorrow: "Some of us who were here last night, aren't here today," she often says during our weekly long-distance Sunday afternoon phone call.

I have worked with and for barracudas, or tiger sharks, whichever applies. I remember this one attractive female supervisor (who later met with an unfavorable end) who could equally rally (and or beguile) female and male staff. She reminded me of All My Children's Erica Kane. I'm sure there were women in the office who wanted be her when they grew up. She was a smooth operator, and one didn't feel the sting of poisonous dart for several minutes after leaving her presence.

I'm not female, so I can't say what it's like to be a woman in a man's world. When I first worked on a helpdesk, there was another female supervisor, reminiscent of Whitney Houston, or some other black diva, without much of the attitude. I think her being a reborn Christian helped her manage us. She too, had a way of inspiring the troops, but she did so with a smile on her face, gift mugs from Disneyland, or homemade cookies.

One of my worst immediate female supervisors was the only other black person in the department, who wanted me to align myself against the man, whitey. She had an annoying habit of flicking her long unpolished nails outward like a movie villainess as she spoke. We didn't like each other, and I did everything in my power to find a new job and move on.

One of my best immediate female supervisors reminded me of my cousin's stepmother. It was my first job in New York City, and I was admittedly homesick. I worked in credit authorization, but wasn't content, so I transferred to the credit collections department. Big mistake. I should've stayed in authorization with the homemade treats and carefully dispensed motherly advice.

A close second worst female supervisor was a woman who had major control issues. It was a long-term temp assignment, and she replaced an outgoing supervisor who was loved and respected. Inside of her first two weeks she had chipped away at the comraderie in the office, and set about trying to divide and conquer. This was a troubling environment because the staff worked well together before she arrived. I'd never seen someone with such insecurities, not even the aftermentioned nail-flicking villainess. She was rude, unprofessional, and deserved what came her way.

The male supervisors paled in comparison to the women, much like they do in men's professional tennis. I'm not one for drama, heightened or otherwise, but some men tend to grunt and shift only for the sake of announcing their continual presence.

One male supervisor stands out. He liked me in ways that I didn't want to be liked. He'd call me into his office and make subtle sexual overtures to see if I'd take the bait. I knew what he was doing, and turned a deaf ear. His attention and pet projects made me uncomfortable. I resigned after having found a new job.

Endnote:I imagine that all jobs have some level of administrative hijinks and power plays. I prefer to work in a team environment, and there's no I in team. There should be no egos, divas, stars, and slackers, but there are and will be. Everyone has a role in life and oftentimes the chess pieces collide and explode, propelling the unsuccessful players off the board and into the unemployment line.

One of my favorite lines of dialogue is in the movie Wonder Boys based on the novel by Michael Chabon. Rip Torn plays "Q", an often-published novelist/teacher to Michael Douglas's stalled and currently unpublished status. Midway through the movie, at a writer's festival on campus, Q announces: "I am a writer!" To that, the audience applauds.

My quote: "I am an artist. Crazymakers and those bent on destruction, keep five hundred feet behind."

Monday, July 10, 2006

Teaching in Spanish Harlem

I have taught an Adult Essay Writing/English Workshop in a GED program Spanish Harlem for the last year. I originally didn't think I'd get the job, concerned that I was a square peg trying to fit into a community that I didn't belong. I'd applied for the job once before, but was passed over for an unknown reason. When I saw the posting a second time on Craigslist, the seemingly one-stop place for anything, everything, and anyone on the Internet, I didn't blink before reapplying.

I arranged an interview more out of curiosity, than an actual desire to get the job. I wanted to know who it was that dissed me the first time. I was asked to teach for an hour, an audition, and ended up going beyond the allotted time.

Walking into that storefront classroom was one of few times I was nervous. I did not feel as I though I was in the hood, but close, and the faces that looked out at me weren't welcoming. It wasn't their fault, the previous teacher was a drill sergeant, and had only lasted a few weeks before resigning (or being terminated).

I pulled from my public speaking, acting, reading Bible verses in church toolbox to calm any fears that I could handle myself in what I later realized can be a hostile environment. I often think of Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds when I look at some of the students. I've no martial arts skills, high cheekbones, or pouty lips to beguile my adult students. I have to rely on my conviction to make an impact in my students' lives.

We all make bad choices, and sometimes choices are made for us. However, I don't believe that we should spend a lifetime in the shadows or making excuses for what has happened. Whose past isn't imperfect?

Each week I learn as much about myself as I impart to the students who pay attention and take notes. My capacity as a big brother and mentor extends to the classroom. I know that I'm contributing to a higher cause (no climbing on a soapbox). Depending upon the week or hour, I see fear, revelation, and sheer confusion on the students' faces.

I didn't foresee my teaching this course, and for this long. Kudos to teachers who are in the classroom five days a week, with assignments and exams to grade, dealing with various student personalities, and their parents. My aunt retired this summer after thirty-nine years as a third grade teacher.

Teaching an essay course keeps my writing and editing skills sharp. Teaching this course, I'm privileged to read about the triumphs and disappointments my students share with me, well, those who attempt or complete the homework.

I don't know if I enjoy more the literary fiction discussions, to hear my students blurt out essay types, forms of punctuation, or the increased confidence in previously shy students.

I know I've changed because of my students, and this evolution wouldn't have otherwise taken place in an office or corporate job. I owe them as much gratitude as they express to me with their weekly attendance, in what has become a standing-room only workshop.

Building blocks for future success . . .

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Independence Day

This year's Independence Day took on a new meaning for me. I was finally able to let go of people who have long since let go of me. It wasn't difficult to do; most of the people I thought were true friends turned out to be fair-weather friends. The difficulty was accepting that I was a poor judge of character.

New York is a city of orphans. Everyone is from somewhere else, or want to escape to someplace, if only in their minds.

My official role as social director with co-workers, cast mates, and strays is a thing of the past. I've not gone to a club or lounge in many years, and no longer care what's hot in New York Nightlife. It was a system of supply and demand. The promoters requested names for their guest lists, and I supplied the bodies. After my last hoorah in a club, I felt relieved. I no longer had to worry about what to wear and who to accompany to various midtown and downtown hotspots. I don't know if I've mourned the absence of my annual birthday, brunch, or potluck guests, but I've definitely questioned my bull meter. I was a big brother, mentor, and unpaid therapist to many people, exhausting myself emotionally, spiritually, and physically to help them solve their crisis of the moment.

What was my life that I invited and cultivated such relationships? I'm not a crazymaker, but I used to attract people that would be better served by a trained clinician and a healthy dose of prescription drugs. I used to think it was my destiny to minister to them, but would undoubtedly feel drained and apprehensive each time the phone would ring.

The names in my address book are strangers. The phone numbers once committed to memory have faded with time, just as the sound of their voices, and expressions on their faces.

Is life cyclical, or do people and experiences happen in our lives because they are suppose to happen? Whatever the answer, today I celebrate not with fireworks and hot dogs, but with a sigh of relief that I'm no longer the person I used to be.